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Well at Work

Wheezing at Work: Tell Your Boss and Your Doctor


About nine percent of all asthma cases in the United States are caused or made worse by our work environments, according to a new analysis by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They covered multi-year data from 38 states and the District of Columbia and concluded that work-related asthma affects a staggering 1.4 million adults annually.

While asthma linked to on-the-job exposures is preventable, it’s also unfortunately under-recognized. The scientists hope these new findings will highlight the need to expand surveillance by employers, to better understand the risk factors and to better focus prevention efforts.

Here’s a short primer on the potential harm of work-related asthma. For more, go to the federal government’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at nhlbi.nih.gov.

Who is at risk for occupational asthma?

Workers in a wide range of worksites—from bakeries to hospitals—are at risk. Occupational asthma results from exposure to allergens or irritants on the job. More than 250 substances are known or believed to cause or exacerbate work-related asthma, including many chemicals used in manufacturing; paints; cleaning products; dusts from wood, grain, and flour; latex gloves; certain molds; animals; and insects. In some cases, cigarette smoking may increase the risk of developing occupational asthma.

What are the symptoms?

Intermittent breathing difficulty including chest tightness, wheezing, cough, and shortness of breath. Symptoms are usually due to swelling of the airways and spasms of the muscles lining the airways, reducing the amount of air that can pass through. You might experience issues shortly after exposure, although some people might not have any ill effects until 12 or more hours. Symptoms usually get worse toward the end of the workweek and improve over the weekend, creating a vicious cycle.

How is occupational asthma diagnosed?

Medical exams and testing at work and away from work might be needed, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Further tests, such as challenge tests, which observe your body's reaction when exposed to potentially problematic substances, or blood tests, may be necessary to prove the suspected condition and its cause. Any asthma evaluation must also consider non-occupational causes of asthma since these are more common and require different treatment.

What are the next steps?

First off, you’ll want to avoid whatever causes the asthma. Yes, easier said than done. This often means pushing for changes in the workplace, or in the extreme, quitting the job. Unfortunately, trying to change the workplace to avoid causes of asthma often can be difficult and expensive (which probably plays into why it’s an under-recognized ailment). Asthma specialists, such as allergists, occupational medicine specialists and lung specialists, are the go-to experts.

Asthma medicines—almost always inhalers—may help you manage your condition, including quick-relief drugs that help relax the muscles of your airways, called bronchodilators.

Tags: Health, Disease, Work